President Biden walks with U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, left, and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson before speaking at an event to mark International Women's Day on March 8.

President Biden walks with U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, left, and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson before speaking at an event to mark International Women's Day on March 8. Patrick Semansky/AP

Biden Nominates Two Women To Lead Combatant Commands

They would become just the second and third women to head up a top-level joint military command.

President Joe Biden nominated two women to lead joint military commands amid a push for more diversity among the Pentagon’s top ranks.

On Friday, Biden nominated Air Force Gen. Jaqueline Van Ovost to lead the U.S. Transportation Command and Army Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson to head U.S. Southern Command. Van Ovost is the head of Air Mobility Command and Richardson of U.S. Army North. The nominations were publicly announced on Saturday.

The president called them “two outstanding and eminently qualified warriors and patriots” during a White House International Women’s Day event on Monday.

“Each of these women have led careers demonstrating incomparable skill, integrity and duty to country,” he said. “At every step they’ve also helped push open the doors of opportunity to women in our military — blazing the trail a little wider, a little brighter for all proud women following in their path and looking to their example.”

Today, all 11 of the military’s combatant commands are run by men. Previously, only one woman has led a CoCom.

Biden has personal connections to both generals. Van Ovost flew Air Force Two when he was vice president and she commanded the 89th Airlift Wing. Richardson’s husband, also a three-star Army general who is the deputy commander of Futures Command, helped evacuate then-Senator Biden from a mountain in Afghanistan in 2008 when the helicopters carrying him and other lawmakers were forced to land in a snowstorm

Van Ovost, currently the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. military, is a 1988 Air Force Academy graduate who wanted to fly fighter jets at a time when the Pentagon banned women from doing so. She instead assigned to fly C-141 cargo planes eventually becoming a test pilot allowing her to fly the very jets she was barred from flying several years earlier. 

"Frankly, I never wanted to be 'the first,'" Van Ovost told in September. "I've been fortunate that other people have broken those glass ceilings and I've been able to blaze right behind them and widen the trail."

Van Ovost last week shared her story of rising through the ranks on NBC’s “Today” show.

Only five women have become full generals in the Air Force, but that’s more four-stars than in the other services combined. Ann Dunwoody is the only woman promoted to four-star general in the Army and Michelle Howard is the only Navy admiral to reach the four-star rank. The U.S. Marine Corps and the year-old Space Force have never had a woman reach four-star rank.

Lori Robinson, a retired Air Force general, became the first woman to lead a combatant command in 2016 when she became the head of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. NORTHCOM oversees the defense of the United States.

If confirmed by the Senate, Richardson — a Black Hawk helicopter pilot — would become the face of the U.S. military in Central and South America — and just the second woman to lead a combatant command.

Last month, the New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other senior defense officials held back recommendations to promote Van Ovost and Richardson over fears that former President Donald Trump would oppose the nominations.

Over the past two months,  Biden has assembled a racially and gender-diverse cabinet. At the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general, became the first Black defense secretary.

“[D]iversity in our military ranks, makes us better at defending the American people,” Austin said at Monday’s event.

A woman has never led a military branch or been a member of the Joint Chiefs. Over the next four years, Biden will get to nominate new commanders of each military branch as well as the Joint Chiefs chairman, vice chairman, and National Guard Bureau. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the current Joint Chiefs vice chairman, is expected to retire’ this summer — opening up another top military.

“Recruiting more women to our military, adjusting policies to retain more women, enforcing policies to protect women, and ensure they are heard and advancing more women on fair and equal footing will, without any question, make our nation safer,” Vice President Kamala Harris said Monday’s White House event. “And that's the work ahead.”